I finished reading Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety some time ago and have wanted to write about it ever since, but I've put it off feeling as though I couldn't possibly do justice to the reading experience I had. When I finished it my initial feeling was one of awe and wonder. I tend to consume books, but this is one that consumed me. In some ways it was emotionally draining, but ultimately it was a profoundly moving experience. How often do you come across books like that? Stegner was truly a master storyteller, someone who gets into the hearts and minds of his characters and portrays them so sympathetically and sensitively, even when they might drive you mad by their actions. These are people we know, people we recognize in ourselves.
Crossing to Safety is an intimate portrait of two married couples who enjoy a very long and close friendship, though not one without its rocky moments. Sid and Charity Lang have all the money and Larry and Sally Morgan have all the luck, or seemingly so at the beginning. Larry narrates the story of their friendship beginning in the 1930s when both men are new professors at a midwestern university. They are idealistic and ready to take on the world, both teaching English and both aspiring writers. Sally and Charity become quick friends as they are both pregnant--Sally with her first child, and Charity expanding her growing family.
Shortly after they meet Larry sells his first short story in what will eventually become a successful career. The Langs are pleased for them and celebratory, but it's easy to see that Sid desires to be a published poet, his idea of fulfillment, which is always elusively and disappointingly just outside his grasp. Charity's idea of success is for Sid to gain tenure at the university, and ever the one to plan and organize she urges him to do the sort of academic writing that will improve his chances yet doesn't inspire him and that he doesn't do well.
Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Larry is when he is not offered a new contract to continue teaching. Instead he takes the opportunity to write full time, an opportunity he wouldn't have been able to pursue were it not for the Langs. They share their wealth and their home with the Morgans enabling them to live independently. And when tragedy strikes, it is again the Langs whose friendship supports and uplifts them--always the first to help and always so selflessly.
Both couples are so vividly drawn and with a complexity that makes them seem solid and real. Charity is the glue that keeps them all together, yet she is also the source of much antagonism. She's a strong woman and strong-willed, not one to bend for anyone or anything but also generous and kind to the core. Charity is the source of strength Sally draws from when she becomes ill. Over the course of three decades the couples will share their lives, each with an eye into the private and sometimes painful world of the others.
Wallace Stegner won all sorts of awards, including the Pulitzer, and if this novel is anything to go by, I am not surprised. He's such a perceptive writer and one who can tell a story with such beautiful prose, particularly his lush descriptions of nature. For me this was a powerful meditation on life and death, on the choices we make and the people we love and what they in turn ask of us. It wasn't always easy reading, particularly when you can see inside these lives that have not perhaps turned out as hoped for and expected, but Stegner writes about emotions and experiences in such a universal way, it's impossible not to empathize and understand and feel what the characters feel--happiness and disappointments alike. Crossing to Safety is easily one of the best books I've read all year.